Washington Babylon — July 20, 2007, 9:58 am

An Exchange on Georgia

Randy Scheunemann, a lobbyist for the government of Georgia, has sent a letter criticizing my recent story on the trial of Maia Topuria. The letter appears below. I asked Lawrence Barcella and Melinda Sarafa, Topuria’s attorneys, to comment on Scheunemann’s letter. Their remarks follow his.

To the editor:

I was more than a little surprised by Ken Silverstein’s recent article (“Georgia Provides Troops for Iraq: Gets a Free Pass on Human Rights?”) that misrepresents the democratic progress made in Georgia since the Rose Revolution of 2003. By citing one Human Rights Watch report on prison conditions and comparing Georgia’s record to Russia’s, one would be led to believe the rule of law in Georgia is imperiled. Nothing could be further from the truth. One needs to look no further than the respected and independent Freedom House rankings that show Georgia’s improvement in areas such as judicial independence and document severe backsliding in Russia. Or one could note that the World Bank recently named Georgia the number one reforming country. Instead of an objective survey, Silverstein unquestioningly quotes a defense lawyer for a Georgian implicated in a violent anti-government plot, Maia Topuria, and claims she and her co-defendants are “members of the political opposition.” In fact, the pro-Russia “Justice” Party was formed by the Russian-sheltered former intelligence chief wanted on an INTERPOL warrant for the 1995 attempted assassination of former Georgian President Shevardnadze. The “Justice” Party is taken seriously only by its paymasters in Moscow. The authentic political opposition in Georgia has denounced the “Justice” Party for the Russian front it is. A more critical reporter might have examined how this defendant is paying the bills for high-priced U.S. legal talent and for the Washington lobbying representation she has retained.

I have been privileged to advise the government of Georgia since 2004 in its historic efforts to build a vibrant and pro-Western democracy–one that is notably willing to share burdens in the difficult battlefields of Iraq. That Silverstein sees something nefarious in this display of courage and shared values speaks far more to his preconceptions than to the reality of democratic Georgia today.

Randy Scheunemann

(The author is registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent working on behalf of the government of Georgia and complies fully with all disclosure requirements.)

My views on the Topuria trial have already been expressed in the story, but I would note that I cited numerous independent reports critical of Georgia, not simply a single study by Human Rights Watch, as Scheunemann claims. I’d also note that the political views of the defendants are irrelevant. If the government of Georgia can use a kangaroo court to convict them, it can do the same to anyone else it pleases. E. Lawrence Barcella, Jr., and Melinda Sarafa respond:

Mr. Scheunemann might find it illuminating to actually read the “respected and independent Freedom House” report he notes, in which case he would see that the statistics Ken Silverstein cites for 2006 (16,911 convictions versus 37 acquittals) come directly from Freedom House’s most recent report on Georgia, which goes on to point out: “The judiciary is not fully independent and continues to suffer from extensive corruption and pressure from the Executive Branch. The payment of bribes to judges is reported to be common, and efforts to reform the judicial system have not moved forward in a meaningful way. The judiciary has been unable to date to establish itself as an independent institutional actor and still suffers from a lack of professionalism.”

If Scheunemann were actually interested in facts, he would also look at the most recent State Department Human Rights Report that Silverstein cites, as well as last Winter’s NATO Riga Declaration, both of which decry the sad state of the Georgian judicial system. Rather than take on a single fact regarding the ongoing trial in Georgia, Scheunemann falls back on the half-century old McCarthyite scare tactic of condemning people because of the political party to which they belong.

Even that he has wrong–five different political parties are represented among the 12 defendants, including some avowed opponents of the former Internal Security Minister to whom he refers. No one is holding up Russia as an example of a vibrant judiciary. Neither can anyone hold up Georgia–where an appalling lack of due process, violations of the Rule of Law, and trampling of fundamental freedoms are well-documented. Scheunemann should observe the judicial travesty that goes on every day during the Topuria trial. But of course he can’t, because the judge slavishly agreed to the prosecution’s demand that the trial be closed to all.

E. Lawrence Barcella, Jr.
Melinda Sarafa
Counsel to Maia Topuria

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